Friday, March 9, 2007

There they go again

Once again, the Bush administration apparently is trying to muzzle government scientists from talking about climate change. It's yet another example of a clumsy and ill-advised attempt to control speech — and once again, it has backfired, thanks to vigilant reporters.

The news came from two stories, one posted Wednesday on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Web site and the other by Andy Revkin of the New York Times yesterday. The stories reported on memorandums from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seem to ban government biologists travelling to meetings in Norway, Russia, Canada, and "any northern country," from discussing how global warming and melting Arctic sea ice are affecting polar bears.

According to the Post-Intelligencer story, the memorandums were prompted by upcoming trips to Norway and Russia by two biologists. The first, Janet Hohn, was scheduled to travel to Norway in a group led by Julia Gourley of the State Department to participate in a meeting on conserving Arctic animals and plants — which are under pressure from a changing climate. The second biologist, Craig Perham was going to Russia to advise villagers along the Siberian coast on how to avoid dangerous encounters with polar bears — which are on the rise because melting sea ice has forced them to shift their migrations.

One of the memorandums requires that an official spokesperson be named when a group of fish and wildlife biologists undertakes foreign travel — and that no one else can speak about issues related to climate change, polar bears and sea ice. My guess is that Gourley would be that spokesperson, since the state department official presumably can be trusted not to engage in any discourse that might cast administration policy in a negative light.

But the memos go even further. From Revkin's story: "The sample memorandums, described as to be used in writing travel requests, indicate that the employee seeking permission to travel 'understands the administration’s position on climate change, polar bears, and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues.' This would appear to prevent both Hohn and Perham from saying anything about climate change, melting sea ice and polar bears — an absurd requirement, since the issues at the heart of the meetings in Norway and Russia relate directly to climate change.

In a story in today's Times, Tina Kreisher, a spokesperson of the Department of the Interior, was quoted as saying that the requirements simply indicated that climate change was not part of the agenda for the meeting in Norway, but that they would not ban Hohn from talking about global warming "over a beer." And the director of the wildlife service, H. Dale Hall, said the requirements simply would insure that Perham would stick to the agenda for his meetings in Russia. But the World Wildlife Fund, which is participating in the Siberia trip, says no set agenda had been negotiated.

This is just the latest attempt to control what government scientists say about climate change. News reports by Andy Revkin of the Times and others have documented other instances involving scientists from NASA and NOAA. The administration and its supporters have responded by saying that individual instances were handled poorly, but that controlling what government employees say about policy, as opposed to science, is wholly appropriate.

I was born in Brooklyn, so I know this bridge just ain't for sale. A single case of an inappropriately worded memo would be one thing. But this keeps coming up over and over again. So either this is yet another example of breathtaking incompetence. Or higher ups in agencies across the government are getting the message that scientists must be censored from talking about scientific issues they're qualified to discuss, lest Americans conclude that U.S. policy on climate change is ill-advised.

Or both.

-- Tom Yulsman

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